touch of africa

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When I flew to Uganda last year, a woman – she eventually disembarked in Burundi, where the plane touched down for an interlude – accidentally brushed up against me as she walked down the asile. She quickly apologized, and extended her hand in apparent concession. Coming out of a failed nap, I responded in kind: in a gesture of mutual reassurance, we pressed each other’s hands for a short moment, the pads of our fingers warmly easing into each other’s skin. Then she walked back to her seat.

I thought about the exchange, and how removed it was from New York City etiquette. We bump fists and have a repertoire of handshakes, but that kind of reassuring touch doesn’t happen in the subway tunnels. That’s the stuff of sub-Saharan African and the Middle East, and maybe western Europe. But not New Yorkers. We’re too tough, too independent for community support. No, thanks, I got this.

A few months after my flight, I was heading to Brooklyn on a packed rush hour subway. A woman boarded, and, even before the train resumed moving, she tried to reach the metal pole behind me to steady herself. But it was too far away, and all she grasped was air. I was standing close to the door, reading a book, and because the train was so crowded, there was nowhere for me to move, and no way for her to get closer to a source of support.

I wasn’t holding on to anything, either, but I’ve had years training with this urban balancing act, first as a kid taking tram rides in Warsaw, then as a kid taking subway rides in NYC. I didn’t even think of it as a skill until a visiting friend of mine described it that way. She didn’t seem to have the requisite cerebellar skill; she looked lost and helpless without an anchor to stabilize her.

“You can hold my hand, if you need to,” I told her.

“Oh. OK,” she said, without much conviction.

As the train accelerated out of the platform, I waited to see if she would take me up on the offer. She braved the physics of it at first. But as we picked up speed, the train began its steady mechanical sway; and, at the first jolt, she grabbed my hand immediately.

“Thanks,” she said meekly.

And I responded by doing the same. I held on to her forearm with equal strength, a shared rescue operation. And so we remained, two strangers holding on to each other and breaking New York City subway decorum, as the train sped under the river.